Flowers, Gardening, Grow Your Own, How To, Insects, Liam, Pest Advice, Planting, Plants

Apples are the nation’s favourite fruit; we grow it more than any other kind. Unlike many other fruits the apple is at home here. Yet despite this, for those who grow apples there is always risk of having a disappointing year.

Weather plays its part and so there may be anguish across different parts of the country but even a fellow gardener down the road may be having some trouble which tells us there are things we can do to ensure a bumper crop of delicious and ripe apples.

Symptoms

The typical signs of a poor harvest may be that you only have a few, or even no apples at all.

Sometimes an apple tree can fall into a biennial harvest cycle, which means it only produces fruit every two or more years. This is typically because the tree has exhausted itself the year prior or isn’t receiving all the essentials.

Equally having a large amount of apples, but all of them being very small and poorly developed defines a thin crop. Surprisingly then, having too many apples as well as too few are signs of a failing tree. These symptoms lead to some different and some similar remedies.

Weather

Before I mention the different issues we do have some control over, it is worth mentioning the one critical factor over which we have less power; the weather.

  • Periods of extended heat and the resulting drought can be particularly catastrophic for young apple trees trying to establish themselves. With underdeveloped leaves and roots they are far more susceptible to losing water and being damaged by hot temperatures.
  • Drought aside, periods of long extended rain throughout the summer will prevent pollinating insects coming out which can be devastating. In 2012 Britain faced the worst apple harvest for several decades with orchards losing up to 70% of their entire expected crop for this very reason.
  • Frost, however, is potentially the most damaging force against fruit everywhere. With the ability to destroy blossoms and fruitlets it can severely diminish a tree’s ability to bear fruit. If the country experiences warm weather in the early spring, instigating blossom, followed by a late and harsh frost a tree may struggle to bear any fruit at all. This is something British wine growers are struggling with this year.
Apples Lost to a Late Frost

To help improve your chance of seeing fruit it is important to make sure your tree is well watered, especially if it has been planted within the last 2 years. You can also use a horticultural fleece if there are late extended cold periods. Importantly it is a good idea to have a range of trees which blossom at different times of year to maximise your chances of pollination. See the ‘Pollination’ section for more details.

Thinning

The Problem

The main cause of an abundance of small, poorly developed apples and biennial harvest cycles is a tree which has exhausted itself in trying to produce a bulk load of apples.

Naturally the tree wants to make as many seeds as possible but this process requires incredible amounts of nitrogen. So if you want an annual supply of fully developed and ripe apples it may be necessary to thin your tree early in the fruiting period.

The tree may try to do this naturally in what is known as the ‘June Drop’ but it doesn’t hurt to give mother nature a helping hand. It may be traumatising to waste so many fruitlets but when it comes to human consumption quality certainly beats quantity.

The Solution

  • First of all rid the tree of any diseased, rotting or malformed fruitlets.
  • After this simply remove the remaining apples until you are left with one apple per 4-6in for dessert (eating) varieties and one apple per 6-9in for cooking varieties.
  • When choosing between apples it is always better to rid those on the underside of branches which may not receive as much light or air.

Pollination

The Problem

Pollination is usually the critical factor in how well your tree fruits. If your tree lacks a pollinating partner or the beneficial pollinating insects, cross pollination may not occur, resulting in a poor crop.

The Solution

  • An apple tree typically needs a pollinating partner within a proximity of around 50ft. This partner must also be an apple tree but of a different variety; very few apple trees are self-pollinating.
  • Apple trees are categorised in pollination groups (1-6) based on when they come into bloom (1 being the earliest in the year). An apple tree such as ‘Red Devil’s Dessert’ (group 3) may pollinate a ‘Gala’ (group 4) however a tree such as ‘Bountiful’ (group 2) may have finished flowering before ‘Lord Derby’ (group 5) comes into bloom.
  • In more rural settings, ensure your apple tree has the right pollinating partners nearby if you are to expect fruit. Ensure there are two different varieties with similar pollination groups. You can even plant a Crab-Apple tree, which makes a fantastic ornamental tree, to act as a pollination partner.
  • Some apple trees such as ‘Bramley’s Seedling’ are triploid trees meaning they require two different pollinating partners.
  • Make your garden attractive to pollinating insects. Lavender, Chamomile and Daffodils are all great plants for getting these welcome visitors into the garden early on in the year while also deterring the pests. See our guide to companion plants for fruit trees for fantastic tips on how to bring beneficial pollinators into your garden!

Pests and Disease

Apple ruined from Brown Rot
An Apple Lost to Brown Rot

The Problem

Unsurprisingly apples are a prime target for a whole host of pests and diseases. These biological annoyances can be the scourge of otherwise perfect fruit, causing ruin, rot and fruit drop. In particular apples suffer from ‘apple scab’, ‘codling moth’, ‘brown rot’ and ‘apple maggot’, among others.

The Solution for Disease

  • Maintaining sound horticultural practices is the best line of defence against pests and disease. Pruning, weeding and keeping your garden clean of fallen leaves and rotting fruit is a simple but effective way of eliminating all those places which harbour apple-destroying life. Equally cutting the grass around your tree and applying a mulch will further help protect it.
  • Most diseases such as Apple Scab and Brown rot are fungal and infect fruit through rotting material which may have been contaminated from last year. Burn infected leaves and fruit or bury at least 1ft under ground to prevent the spread of spores.
  • Regularly check your fruit for any sign of infection or any wounds. Be vigilant when pruning and always sterilise your pruning equipment when dealing with a diseased tree.
  • As the tree is budding in spring, certain fungicide sprays are available such as a copper based solution. This should be sprayed as the leaves emerge and then again 14 days later; this is, however, mainly preventative.

The Solution for Pests

  • For insects such as Apple Maggot and Codling Moth again you want to destroy any potential hiding spots and prune out any areas of congestion. Hiding spots may include plastic tree guards and so a metal mesh guard is recommended instead.
  • Nontoxic horticultural oils are a good way to kill dormant insects and their eggs which should be applied on the tree during spring. Sticky and pheromone traps can be used and should typically be set in early May before the insects mate.
Apple ruined by Codling Moth
A Codling Moth Caterpillar
  • There are several all-purpose bug sprays but these can deter the more beneficial pollinating insects and should only be used when there is a clear infestation.
  • Certain plants, such as chives provide a strong deterrent to pests including deer and rabbits as well as insects yet is attractive to many beneficial pollinating insects. Additionally dill, fennel and nasturtium all provide an organic solution to protect your fruit trees against pests. Again see our Companion Planting post for further details.

Hopefully I have helped to explain why your tree may be fruiting below par and you’ve found a remedy for this frustration.

Liam at PrimroseLiam works in the buying team at Primrose. He is passionate about studying other cultures, especially their history. A lover of sports his favourite pass-time is football, either playing or watching it! In the garden Liam is particularly interested in growing your own food.

See all of Liam’s posts.

Gardening, Gardening Year, How To, Liam, Plants, Trees

Many of us are unaware of what a good, well-shaped fruit tree is supposed to look like. We all know that it is supposed to bear fruit but sometimes we neglect that the key to this is pruning.

Whether you have just brought your fruit tree or if you have let nature run its course over the last few years it’s a perfect time to start an annual pruning regiment. A well-shaped fruit tree can support the most fruit and is less susceptible to disease and pest infestation.

Fear not! Pruning is not as daunting as it sounds and with this guide you’ll know how to prune a fruit tree in no time. With just a few hours every year you’ll be sure to expect a bumper crop of your very own.

In this guide we’ll be covering the two main types of fruit tree; the pome (apples, pears, seed bearing fruit) and stone (cherries, apricots, plums) fruit varieties. The central premise for all is the same but there are some slight adjustments in method and timing dependant on the variety.

Pruning a Pome – The Winning Formula

To those that know, gardening is incredibly sentimental. But to yield the greatest crop you have to be clinical and professional. Cutting so many young fruitlets, branches and leaves may feel counter-intuitive but in the long-run your tree will thank you for it, trust me. With that being said you do not want to be reckless. Over-pruning equally leads to a decline in the abundance of fruit.

Pruning serves two main functions; training and maintenance. As the tree is growing you can train it through pruning out undesirable branches and guiding the tree to an evenly-spaced, goblet shape. Once this is done you’ll be left with branches capable of supporting fruit. The objective then is to maintain this shape and keep things tidy.

How to Prune a Fruit Tree Diagram
Step by Step to the Desired Shape

For Young Trees (2-4 yrs)

  • When pruning a Pome fruit tree it is best to carry this out during the winter while the tree is dormant.
  • Always remember to cut at a 45° angle and to wash any pruning equipment in a sterilising solution if you are dealing with anything diseased. This will help prevent the spread of contamination.
  • The priority is to get rid of anything dead, dying or diseased. The goal is to manage the plant’s growth so that energy is directed into establishing the roots and healthy branches.
  • You then want to remove any vertical and acute growing branches. These branches won’t be able to support the weight of fruit and usually end up getting damaged.
  • You also want to prune away any branches that cluster or cross over. When these grow larger they’ll damage one another and help the spread of disease and pests. 
  • This may require you to cut as much as a 1/3 of all your branches if the tree is particularly unkempt.
  • We are looking to train the tree as horizontally as possible. So with the branches you have left you should cut back to an outward facing bud. This will stimulate growth from this bud training the branch outwards.

In the early years pruning is a form of training designed to stimulate growth in branches capable of supplying fruit. Even though by this point the side shoots may be very small it is a good idea to cut them off if they’re growing inward to maintain the desired shape early on.

For Older Trees (5+ yrs)

As the tree gets older however, and especially if you’ve been suffering from poor harvests, the aim is to maintain the shape and branches which can support fruit maximising your yields.

  • After removing anything dead, dying or diseased you then want to pick out any unfavourable branches. These again include any vertical, acute or congested branches. This opens the tree up allowing for air and sunlight to reach it.
  • Additionally if there are any branches growing from below the rootstock these are ‘suckers’ and should be pruned out entirely.
How to cut diagram
The Perfect Pruning Cut
  • After this, prune back last year’s growth on each of the main branches roughly by about ⅓. Prune back to just above a bud which looks like it will grow outwards in the desired direction.
  • A cautionary note; an apple tree will respond to very heavy pruning by a vigorous regrowth the following year. So if you have a tree which needs some serious renovation it may be worth spacing the work out over a period of 2-3 years.

After this, when you have a neat and well-trained tree, simple annual maintenance should keep a great shape for growing fruit.

Pruning a Stone Fruit Tree

  • Unlike the Pome a stone fruit tree such as a cherry or apricot will prefer being pruned during spring for younger trees and early to mid-summer for established trees. This is to prevent your tree being contaminated with silver leaf or bacterial canker, both of which serious tree diseases.
  • When it comes to pruning a stone fruit tree the method is the same as for the Pome fruit tree and again you want the same result; a goblet-shaped tree with strong, evenly spaced branches growing out horizontally.

  • Pruning in spring and summer may require you to cut out buds and fruitlets. However traumatising this process may seem it is necessary. The key to good pruning is to be as professional as possible; in the long run you and your tree will reap the benefits.

Despite the fact cutting off developing fruit may see wholeheartedly counter-intuitive it must be done and can actually lead to a better crop. Many trees naturally want to produce as many seeds as possible which can lead the tree to exhaust itself. If this happens your tree could fall into a biennial harvest; only producing fruit every two or more years. See the section on ‘thinning’ in our  apple tree troubleshooter (coming soon) for how to do this. 

Pruning is the key to a healthy tree and fruit which develops and ripens beautifully. Hopefully by now you know how to prune a fruit tree. Over time though you may recognise specific trees respond to different kinds of treatment. This is all part of a personal learning experience with your garden.

Liam at PrimroseLiam works in the buying team at Primrose. He is passionate about studying other cultures, especially their history. A lover of sports his favourite pass-time is football, either playing or watching it! In the garden Liam is particularly interested in growing your own food.

See all of Liam’s posts.

Composting, Flowers, Garden Design, Gardening, Grow Your Own, Liam, Pest Advice, Planting, Wildlife

For hundreds of years farmers have used companion planting as a method to help improve their yields and get the most out of their fruit trees. This organic solution does far more than simply prevent pests from eating your fruit. Certain plant combinations serve a whole host of benefits including increased pollination, weed prevention and improved soil nutrition. Additionally it is a great way to cover the space under a fruit tree offering more colour and variety to your garden!

The Basics

As fellow gardeners I’m sure you recognise it is important to try and keep a natural balance, even in your garden. A key premise to companion planting is trying to avoid monocultures by planting a variety of different plants together. Among other things, you make it difficult for pests to find their desired food and spread amongst your crop.

For the Love of Fruit

Many people believe that it is difficult to grow anything under a tree. However, there are a great variety of plants which naturally thrive in this space. With that being said it is important to remember that if your fruit tree is trying to establish itself it is important to water it regularly, especially if you plan on planting more plants around it.

Fruit trees constantly come under attack from various pests because of their delicious fruit. They also require extra levels of potassium to help stimulate bud and fruit growth. If you want to avoid using chemical fertilisers or pesticides here is an essential list of companion plants for your fruit tree:

  • Chives – The scent of chives provides a strong deterrent to pests including deer and rabbits as well as insects and yet is attractive to the more beneficial pollinators. Additionally chives have been known to prevent apple scrab which is a notorious scrounge of apple fruit. A cautionary note is that chives are aggressive growers and so they will require maintenance to stop them invading the entire bed.
  • Nasturtium – A real favourite in the world of companion planting. This is a great plant to lure away aphids and particular caterpillars from your trees. It is a sacrificial crop. Nasturtium requires minimal nutrients, sun or water and so is brilliant for diverting pests while keeping your fruit tree strong. It has also been known to repel codling moth, a particular scrounge of apples.
Companion Planting - Nasturtium
Nasturtium in bloom
  • Fennel – This plant is fantastic for attracting pollinating and predatory insects. Hoverflies, ladybirds and parasitic wasps all love fennel and they love aphids and caterpillars even more. Plant this in your garden to help wage a natural war against these pests. Fennel can of course also be used for cooking and has been known to carry medicinal properties.
  • Dill – Very similar advantages as fennel; it attracts a host of predatory and pollinating insects… and it can also be used in cooking. Win win!
Companion Planting - Dill
A Hoverfly resting on a Dill plant.
  • Comfrey – Not only has this plant been used medicinally by people for nearly 2,500 years it is an amazing miner of soil providing nutrients for your tree! Being a deep-rooted plant it draws nutrients from the soil and then can be cut back and the clippings used as an organic mulch. Comfrey is drought, frost and pest resistant and grows well in partial shade so is perfect for the space under your tree. I would recommend trying to plant the ‘Bocking 14’ variety developed by organic pioneer Lawrence Hills. ‘Bocking 14’ being sterile won’t self-pollinate and spread all over your garden.
  • Chamomile – This beautiful flower deters pests with its strong scent while drawing in pollinators. Being drought and frost resistant and also not afraid of a little shade makes it perfect to plant around a tree. If suffering from a pest infestation a triple strength chamomile tea can be brewed and used as a spray for the affected area.

    Companion Planting - Chamomile
    Chamomile
  • Daffodils – Flowering early in the season daffodils are perfect for bringing in and supporting those pollinating insects. For a splash of spring colour plant in a circle around your tree at around 1ft from the base.
  • Lavender – Truly a favourite amongst all pollinating insects, including and especially bees; it’s strong scent also confuses pests. Lavender not only looks great in your garden but can be used for various DIY product such as soaps or teas. Or you can simply pick it and put it into a bowl for around the home to create a calming aroma.
Companion Planting - Lavender Flowers
Some bees thoroughly enjoying the pollen rich Lavender flowers

Understandably when it comes to food, especially food you’ve devoted labour and love to, you are cautious about spraying it with potentially harmful pesticides or even using fertilisers. Companion planting therefore offers an age-old organic method to ensuring healthy fruit trees while adding a touch of vibrancy and colour to your garden. You may also end up with some extra herbs to liven up your dishes!

Jorge at PrimroseLiam works in the buying team at Primrose. He is passionate about studying other cultures, especially their history. A lover of sports his favourite pass-time is football, either playing or watching it! In the garden Liam is particularly interested in growing your own food.

See all of Liam’s posts.

Garden Design, Gardening, George, How To, Make over

Whether you’ve recently moved house, or just looked outside for the first time in months, anyone can find themselves facing a neglected garden. It’s intimidating. Overgrown plants, out of control trees, more weed than lawn – where do you start? There are a few things worth bearing in mind, and preparation is key, so here is our advice on how to restore a neglected garden. Take on the challenge!

How to restore a neglected garden

Tips for restoring a neglected garden

1 – Be patient
It’s best to wait a full year before you get started if possible. See what the garden looks like in all seasons, which areas become shady or full of life. What appears to be a pile of twigs now may blossom into a beautiful tree come spring.

2 – Make a list
While you’re waiting, observe what you like and dislike about the garden. Write it all down – plants, trees and any other features.

3 – Create space
When you’re ready to tackle the garden, the first step is to clear the area. You’ll see exactly what you have to work with and it will make designing your new garden much easier. It often helps to do this over winter. Try to compost any organic matter you clear for later use.

Weeding the patio

4 – Leave the trees
Cut back overgrown hedges and weeds, but hold back on the trees at first. They can be very difficult to fully remove (you’re often left with a huge stump that’s worse than before) and take so long to grow and establish that it’s difficult to replace them.

5 – Choose which plants to keep
A weed is any plant you don’t want – so dig it up. Remember that plants can be moved if you’d prefer them somewhere else, just treat them with care. This will save you money too. If you need help identifying plants, ask in the Primrose Gardens community.

6 – Take it a step at a time
If you work methodically on one area of your garden at a time, you will see the fastest improvements – which can be great motivation! Work to a design plan, keeping in mind where structural changes like decking, raised beds and sheds will go.

Pruning

7 – Prune
Pruning back existing plants gives two benefits – it makes more space and encourages fresh growth. If you’re unsure which plants need pruning or how to go about it, ask on Primrose Gardens or email our gardening expert.

8 – Rejuvenate the lawn
Depending on how long your garden’s been neglected, the lawn could be in any state. Start by mowing the grass and trimming the edges to get it tidy. Then reseed any bare patches or lay down new turf if you need grass in additional places.

9 – Know your budget
Before you go crazy on the spending front, be mindful of your budget so costs don’t get out of control and grind your project to a halt. Landscaping can get very expensive, especially for large areas, but planting is relatively cheap – especially if you grow from seed.

Garden theme

10 – Pick your theme
Deciding on a consistent theme for your garden will make all the difference in taking it from standard to exceptional. Visit show gardens and exhibitions like Hampton Court or watch gardening shows for inspiration.

11 – Add finishing touches
Finally it’s time to take your garden from usable to somewhere you really want to be. Clean up and paint or varnish the woodwork. Plant up any gaps in the flowerbeds. Tidy the borders with edging. Add some furniture for comfort and decorations to express your style.

Maintaining your restored garden

Once the hard work is done, of course you want to avoid the garden ever falling into the state it was in when you started. In the simplest terms you need to keep on top of anything that grows getting out of hand. This is what makes the garden look messy and can cause plants to become overcrowded and rot. Make sure you mow the lawn regularly and trim the edges. Prune plants and trees as necessary each year. Weeds are unfortunately unavoidable, so make time each week for getting rid of them.

Maintaining restored garden

Aside from that, you just need to look after the non-living items like you would do in the house. Keep the fences, furniture and patios clean. Furniture covers will protect your chairs and tables from the elements. Don’t be afraid to give woodwork a new coat of paint to keep it looking fresh. Experiment with new colours and styles in your blooms.

If too much maintenance sounds daunting then it’s worth keeping this in mind while you’re redesigning your garden. Choose options that will make your life easier down the line. Hardy plants can be mostly left to fend for themselves and won’t require as much of your time. Straight-edged lawns are much quicker to mow than curves, or perhaps you’d rather have artificial grass to eliminate the issue entirely.

Tools for restoring your garden

What will you need for your garden transformation? Here are some of the essentials:

  • Hedge trimmer
  • Lawn mower
  • Edge trimmer
  • Pruning shears
  • Fork
  • Spade
  • Gardening gloves

… But there may be many more specialist items depending on the scale of your project, from chainsaws to industrial diggers!

Tools for restoring garden

Embrace the challenge

So there we have it – our tips for getting through your neglected garden restoration. If you’ve ever tackled an unloved outdoor space, let us know what you learned along the way in the comments below. But most importantly, don’t be intimidated. See it as a fun challenge, whether you’re an experienced gardener or this is the first time you’re getting your hands dirty. It’s liberating – after all, you can’t make the garden any worse than it already is!

George at PrimroseGeorge works in the Primrose marketing team. As a lover of all things filmic, he also gets involved with our TV ads and web videos.

George’s idea of the perfect time in the garden is a long afternoon sitting in the shade with a good book. A cool breeze, peace and quiet… But of course, he’s usually disturbed by his energetic wire fox terrier, Poppy!

He writes about his misadventures in repotting plants and new discoveries about cat repellers.

See all of George’s posts.

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